PRAGUE – After one year in Poprad the Czech-Slovak KHL team Lev will move to Prague. The Czech Ice Hockey Association has given the team a green light for the move, while Slovan Bratislava applies to join the Russian league.
It has been a long battle for the Lev investors, the CKD Group, to have their team in the Czech Republic. Back in the spring of 2010, Czech investors wanted to set up their club team Lev – which means lion both in Czech and Russian – in the city of Hradec Kralove that has its team play in the second tier of Czech hockey.
The investors couldn’t find common ground with the Czech Ice Hockey Association that wouldn’t give permission. The investors moved to the Slovak spa town Poprad, where a solution couldn’t be found until one year later.
Lev Poprad became the first team outside of the former Soviet Union to play in the KHL in the autumn of 2011. Most teams are from Russia, and one each from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia.
However, the team with many Czech and Slovak national players finished only 21st in the 23-team league and only a small part of the budget was covered by hockey-related revenues in the 4,500-capacity arena.
Now a dream of the Czech investors will likely become true. They were working on moving the team to Prague and to play in the Czech metropolis’ prime venue, the 17,000-seat O2 Arena that was built for the 2004 IIHF World Championship.
Until now the arena has been used by Slavia Prague of the Czech Extraliga, which has a long-term contract with the arena that could cause logistical problems for Lev Prague moving into the same building.
Despite the open issues with the arena, the investors managed to find an agreement with the Czech hockey authorities this time around.
Tomas Kral, the President of the Czech Ice Hockey Association, confirmed at a press conference on Thursday following an executive committee meeting that Lev Prague signed an agreement with the governing hockey body of the country and will become a member of it.
“Lev can play in the KHL as a Czech club,” Kral confirmed following the long discussions with the investors. “We discussed with the owner. They gave us detailed information about the funding of the club and their goals.”
What apparently didn’t happen two years ago has eventually worked out now so the club can play as Lev Prague in the KHL for 2012/2013, pending the formality of the KHL’s approval of the bid.
The KHL announced on Friday: “On receipt of the corresponding application documentation the Kontinental Hockey League will conduct an inspection to verify that the club meets the relevant criteria for participation in the Championship.”
The agreement also foresees transfer fees for players that join Lev from other Czech clubs. And the deal also includes the team that will play in the KHL’s junior league, MHL, in the city of Karlovy Vary.
For Kral the MHL team is an interesting project as well. “It could be an alternative for young Czech players, who would otherwise move overseas,” Kral told hokej.cz. “Our junior national teams would benefit from that. We had 18 hockey players in North America we were not able to have on our teams during the season.”
Kral supports the idea of his country being part of a multinational league. There were also talks of creating a joint Czech-Slovak league, but this was denied by the Czech Association of Professional Ice Hockey Clubs (APK) that has run the Czech Extraliga in the recent years.
“The APK members were approached with the project of a joint league of Czechs and Slovaks,” Kral said. “But they rejected it without even discussing about it.”
Tension with Extraliga clubs
Now Czech hockey will turn to the Russian league. But this move doesn’t necessarily mean peace and order in Czech hockey. The tension between the Czech Ice Hockey Association and the clubs has increased since the APK announced it wants a different contract with the association for running the Czech Extraliga as of next season.
The APK has run the league since signing the first agreement with the association in 2000, but decided to expire it by the end of May.
The changes requested by the APK – including scratching the promotion/relegation system and closing the Czech top league – were not approved by the association and its executive committee has now decided at its meeting on Thursday to run the Extraliga on its own as of 1st June.
Slovan Bratislava and HK Poprad want to join KHL
While the future of the Czech Extraliga looks unclear due to the battle, Lev Prague could be joined to the KHL by Slovak teams to revive old Czechoslovak club rivalries in the Russian league, instead of the Czech-Slovak project.
Slovak powerhouse Slovan Bratislava applied to join the KHL and play their games in the 10,000-seat Orange Arena that was rebuilt for the 2011 IIHF World Championship.
Also another Extraliga club announced its intention to join. HK Poprad hopes to find the financial means to keep the KHL in the spa town after Lev’s move to Prague.
Both Slovak applications were approved by the Slovak Ice Hockey Association.
Question marks in Milan
Whether all three teams will be approved by the KHL is not known yet and will also depend on the funding, same as for Milano Rossoblù.
The club from Italy’s second-tier league announced its intention to join the KHL one year ago, but neither the inclusion into the Russian league has been confirmed yet, nor the venue where the Milan-based club would play.
The only KHL news published by the club in the last few months are KHL playoff games broadcast on Italian sports channels, but Milano Rossoblù hopes to solve the financial and arena issues in April.
Meanwhile the club also battles on the ice for promotion to Italy’s top league, Serie A.